Lessons from the past
Afterthoughts about our new president-elect — and ourselves:
Election Day evening, as it slowly, state by state, became obvious that Donald J. Trump was being elected president of the United States of America, my thoughts kept going back to a meeting on globalization about two years ago at the American Enterprise Institute here in the nation’s capital.
Even though it’s a conservative institution, the AEI had invited several liberal globalization enthusiasts that day, and they were jubilant: Free trade among the nations of the world had already made poor people all over the world more prosperous! Globalization would strengthen the web of human hope from Rwanda to Luxembourg to Burma! Globalization was right!
In the question-and-answer period, I humbly challenged: And what would happen to the steelworker in Gary, Indiana, close to my beloved hometown of Chicago, when his job and his capacity to support his family had disappeared to God-knows-where?
Snickering smiles greeted me. The girl (me) obviously didn’t understand. The girl (me, again) stood on the brink of a wondrous new world and just didn’t “get it.”
“Why, they will simply find jobs in the service industry,” one leader of the group answered impatiently. We moved on.
I remained unable to see that steelworker from Gary working as a concierge at an upscale urban hotel, but decided to stop talking.
Another story that kept coming up in my mind Tuesday night occurred one day on the “altiplano” or high plain of Bolivia 25 years ago, when I was living in Peru as a foreign correspondent. I adored the exquisite scenery up there at 14,000 feet. I respected the Quechua and Aymara Indians, descendants of the brilliantly advanced Inca empire, destroyed when the voracious Spaniards invaded in the 16th century.
But, although I prided myself on being racially and ethnically unprejudiced, I honestly never understood these Indians. Their faces were square and strong, but implacably impassive. In all my months living there, I never saw a smile or even the suggestion of any facial expression. I spoke fluent Spanish, but they spoke the Indian languages and never responded to my attempts to engage them.
Then one day, I was driving across the altiplano with a Bolivian anthropologist who had been able to break through their ancient walls of silence. At one spot, as he talked with them, I spontaneously asked him to ask them what -- above anything -- they wanted, from their government and from their fellow non-Indian Bolivians. Eventually he came back with an answer.
I was first amazed and then deeply disturbed. Because they were so very different, I had assumed they would want better food, warmer houses, perhaps education for their children. But dignity? I left the altiplano that day deeply ashamed of myself for not understanding this.
Today, as we face a Donald J. Trump presidency, I think of these experiences as lessons.
• The first one, centered around globalization, was a typical example of the lack of public concern for those Americans in between the two coasts. Even when a Princeton University paper showed middle-aged American white men dying at an abnormally increasing rate last year (apparently from drugs, alcohol and depression), the story made the papers briefly -- and then disappeared. Bo-ring!
• The second example, centered around the stolid and seemingly unknowable Aymaras in faraway Bolivia, was the most dramatic lesson I personally have had of the need for dignity among ALL peoples. How could we not know that it was also to be found in the rust belts of Pennsylvania or the Garys of Indiana?
Please don’t tell me that the answer to all of this is to be found in “the media.” Please don’t tell me that it was journalists who kept it from you.
All we can do now is begin thinking about all of this -- seriously, for a change, and hope that The Donald will rise to the occasion. We must also, by the way, exemplify in our own lives the cultured, cultivated nation we want to have.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Georgie Anne Geyer Columnist